Unfortunately, as is often the case with Eating Disorders, I relapsed a number of times. Uni were fantastic and were so supportive of getting me through my medical degree. Later that year when I relapsed I got help much faster and whilst I was re-admitted to the specialist unit for another 8 weeks I was nowhere near as physically compromised. However, Eating Disorders are a mental illnesses with physical consequences so whilst someone may “look better”, they may be struggling just as much if not more psychologically- which was certainly the case for me during that time.
The following year after 2 years off and confident I was absolutely fine I then went back to Uni and started 3rd year- my first year of clinical placement. It was difficult as I’d had been off for a few years; I was in a new cohort and it was confronting seeing my friends as final years and interns,thinking “I should be there, that should be me”. Whilst I thought I had done the psychological work I needed to do, I still hadn’t resolved a great deal about my view of myself, my unrealistic expectations of myself, my internal belief systems that dictated what I needed to do in order to measure up as ok, successful and safe from rejection and failure.
I had to do some serious soul searching. Was Medical school making or keeping me sick? Was I so worked up about doing well and succeeding at Uni that it was keeping me unwell? I ended back in hospital later that year for severe depression and ended up taking the rest of that year off. The profound depression I had that year was totally different to anything I’d experienced with before, I was verging on catatonic and was a very real risk to my life. It was a significant low point; I had stopped eating and drinking altogether which was nothing to do with Anorexia cognitions or concern about my weight or body image, I had just signed out of life at that point.
The self-evaluation process and the intense psychotherapy geared towards changing my view of self took a long time and a lot of hard work. Once I improved I realised that Medicine was actually what was diving me to get better. I had again found my passion for it and proved to myself that I could do it, didn’t have to get the top marks to be “OK”.
In the latter part of that year a number of things “clicked”. The psychological work I’d been doing had enabled me to radically change the problematic belief systems that had kept me stuck and lead to my demise. Since then, I never looked back and consider myself fully recovered. I finished third year, a huge achievement and subsequently went on to complete 4th year in the country which I absolutely loved and then final year and finally walked across the stage at my long-awaited graduation ceremony! To say I was proud that I had achieved that goal despite the setbacks that I encountered is an understatement.
Whilst I wouldn’t choose the experience, I wouldn’t take it back. I’ve met some amazing people because of my experiences and as a result of the hard work I did in therapy I’ve got a vastly different perspective on life, much more positive and healthy than the one I had. I’ve also had the opportunity to speak at 2 national conferences about my experiences being recovered from an Eating Disorder and joined Eating Disorder’s Victoria (EDV) initially as a volunteer and then as an EDV Board member and Speaker’s Bank member where I talked with groups of parents or those suffering from an eating disorder about my experiences.
During my treatment, I met a number of other medical students who were also being treated for eating disorders. It’s a significant problem both within the community and within the profession we’re pretty poor at recognising it. It has become evident to me that generally Eating Disorders are not readily recognized until someone is at death’s door. I understand it’s a difficult topic to broach but that’s why we need to get better at talking about it, not just about Anorexia and Eating Disorders but about mental illness as a whole. How can we expect our patients to fight the stigma associated with mental illness if we as a profession are reluctant to openly discuss it ourselves? How can we expect things to change?
That’s why I choose to have an open dialogue about my experience. I don’t think it signifies that I’m weak, or a bad doctor or person because I’ve suffered from Mental Illness. On the contrary, I believe my experiences have made me a much more empathetic Doctor and one with a plethora of life experience. I know what it’s like to feel vulnerable as a patient and as such my treatment of my patients is with that in mind. My experiences and the way I’ve fought to achieve my goals characterizes my strength, persistence and determination and has made me the person I am today; happy, healthy and passionate about bringing about change to how we all view mental illness, both within and external to our profession.